Steve Jobs was just a man
- Jacques Rousseau
- 11 Oct 2011 08:07 (South Africa)
A few hours after hearing of Steve Jobs’ death, it started to seem as if Princess Diana would have reason to be jealous (if she could still be anything at all), such was the outpouring of praise directed at the former CEO of Apple. “Praise” is, of course, the understated version of some of what we read, or witnessed at iStores across the world, where the behaviour often seemed more worshipful than you’d imagine was merited by the death of a man with no (ostensible) religious following.
But as Umberto Eco observed in 1994, the ongoing debates between supporters of the Mac and the PC have long been something like a holy war. PC users disparage the Mac faithful for embracing the paternalism of a world with prescribed choices, and Mac users sneer at the irrationality of us PC folk in making our digital lives so much more complicated than they should be.
“I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation,” said Eco at the time.
“DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revellers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.”
As is the case with all cults, adherents tend to lose touch with reality. Something of a personality cult developed around Steve Jobs – partly because of the undeniable sexiness of the products he introduced each year, and more recently perhaps partly due to his well-publicised battle against pancreatic cancer.
Now we see Jobs lauded as the sort of innovator and business leader the world needs more of, despite the evidence suggesting that he was a somewhat abusive autocrat rather than the sort of consultative, politically-correct leader that regularly gets held up as an example to follow in business as well as in politics. There’s evidence of a double standard here, and there is also a remarkable lack of balance in the range of responses to his death and his legacy.
Just as much of the reaction to the failure of South Africa to grant the Dalai Lama a visa prompted either overly flattering portraits of the man himself or character assassinations, Steve Jobs is now either deified or demeaned, depending on who you read. The truth is, as always, not that simple, and we do ourselves no favours by embracing these false dichotomies.
Of course, Jobs changed the world, but he’s no Norman Borlaug, Rosa Parks, Thomas Edison or even Craig Venter. He refined and popularised various tools for making our digital lives more efficient, and more pleasurable. Apple, with Jobs at the helm, had mastered the art of making us believe that renaming and refining was the equal of invention – but it isn’t.
The iCloud is simply the cloud, as most of us knew before Jobs tried to get us there with fewer clicks of a button, and FaceTime is simply video-conferencing with a silly name. A mouse with one button, like Apple’s used to be, is simply a crippled input device. The most recent innovation, introduced at the launch of the iPhone 4S, is Siri – a voice-activated tool for performing various functions on your mobile phone. Siri no doubt has a lovely voice, but she’s doing the same job I’ve been able to do on my Android phones for the last three years.
An example of something actually invented by Jobs or Apple is difficult to find (just as it is for Microsoft). What they mostly do is package and resell the innovations of the real mavericks – those who truly “think different” (while perhaps respect [sic] grammar). What Jobs and Gates have historically done is encourage you to think the same – at least in terms of believing that their products, and their products alone, are the route to your digital salvation.
This is not necessarily or always a bad thing. Informed buyers can be aware of the costs and benefits of aligning themselves to one faction or the other, or mixing and matching if appropriate. I use iPods, but manage them with PC software because iTunes is horribly bloated and slow, at least on a PC. And I use PCs and Android devices because I want to tinker and customise, and I certainly don’t want to be told that Apple considers a phone app to violate standards of decency they have decided I should hold.
If you want things to just work, and don’t want to invest time and energy in learning how they work, there’s no question in my mind that Apple products can be superior. But as Andrew Orlowski points out, the problem is in claiming that they, or Steve Jobs, changed the world because it raises the question of how small that world – your world – started out as. A new way to do something we’ve always been able to do can be innovative, but it isn’t so by definition.
The endless queues around iStores on the release of a new Apple product, and the religious fervour accompanying the annual Apple product announcements, give the impression of a world of devotees that were letting Jobs do their thinking for them, rather than using the tools he introduced to do their own creating and innovating. This thinking is different, yes, but it’s perhaps not the kind of thinking that even Jobs would endorse, as much as he would have appreciated the resulting profits.
In an interview for Wired magazine in 1994, Jobs said there was a “solution to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn't it. You're not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a web site in every school - none of this is bad. It's bad only if it lulls us into thinking we're doing something to solve the problem with education. ... What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.”
One thing that certainly helps in fixing education is to encourage critical thought, and to discourage the binary worldview which says that Steve Jobs is either a techno-messiah or some sort of sweatshop-running magpie of digital innovation, taking and then rebranding other people’s ideas in furtherance of the cult of Apple.
But treating one person as so important and so meaningful to the world, when he was only doing the same thing as his competitors – sometimes years after them – seems rather hyperbolic. It’s true that he made computing easier for many, and has done the same thing for our smaller computers that also make phone calls. Whether this is a good thing or not is an open debate, because easier can often mean that there’s less for you to do, and less for you to think about. DM
- Homophobia and the politics of outrage
- Please look after the place while I’m gone.
- Parliament – where dead sheep savage one another
- ‘Catholic’ and ‘Muslim’ South Africa
- Free speech doesn’t guarantee an audience
- So atheists are people too?
- A culture of dying
- Deciding when to die
- Minds are what brains do
- So what are universities for?
- Mantashe wants to help you 'Know your DA'
- Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!
- UCT, race, and the seductive moral outrage machine
- The sound and fury of sanctimony
- Burn the witch!
- Not even Madiba can turn anecdotes into data
- Pornography is coming to eat your children
- Do you know what’s good for you?
- #We Say Enough
- Talking about risk-mitigation is not (always) victim blaming
- Can Frankensalmon triumph over uninformed ad-hoc opinions?
- You can leave your hat on
- If performance-enhancing drugs are bad, let's ban high-fibre cereal too.
- Blood deferrals: Too important to take personally
- The world according to Zuma - and the trouble with 'culture'
- A free market in false choices
- I, for one, welcome our robot overlords
- Debate is the key
- Been there? Got the T-shirt? Think carefully before you wear it...
- You are what you tweet
- Body language: Freedom confronts respect in Body Worlds human forms
- Choose wisely: Mourdock, rape and targeted outrage
- Birds of a feather...philosophise together?
- So who owns oppression, really?
- Help, not demonisation, will stem child abuse
- More about trolls
- Please do not feed the trolls
- Affirmative action: Equity does not come with voting rights alone
- SAA's cadet programme: The sky isn't falling
- South Africa: Why do you make me hate you?
- SA & religion: Eyes wide shut
- Freedom of speech & freedom of abuse
- Is free speech fried in Chick-fil-A debate?
- Colorado killings: there's no comfort in the absurd
- Let's try to avoid drive-by charity on Mandela Day
- First do no harm
- The cutting edge of religion
- Public holidays: positive discrimination?
- The new discrimination – against men
- Censorship: The chilling effect
- Health Warning: You may not smoke, but you can eat yourself to death
- 'I see a red door and I want it painted black'
- Freedom of speech; oh, perish the thought
- Homophobia trending among traditional leaders
- How to meat friends and influence people
- How to meat friends and influence people
- Still hunting, still gathering
- Dogmatix isn't only a canine in the Asterix comic books
- Exactly Whose Humanity is Vanishing?
- Tim Noakes on carbohydrates - fad or fact?
- Mind over matter – and knowing the difference
- Don't PIN your freedoms to Icasa's apron strings
- Killing the messenger never silences the message
- The unbearable rightness of maybe being wrong
- The worrisome worth of foregone conclusions
- The tyranny of labels
- Staring into the abyss of ‘special privileges’
- Twitter censorship, the Streisand Effect and three fingers pointing back
- Free speech is good - but not in my back yard
- Abortion - the great conceptual conundrum
- Killing live animals to talk to dead people is bull
- Stalking votes with over-the-counter vetoes
- Always look on the One side of life
- Get Tested: Get off the entitlement horses and give it a chance
- The Lotters, Harry Potter and SA's judicial system
- The haunting of Helen Zille
- The Great T-Shirt Debate that went horribly wrong
- M&M & the media – playing the ball or the men?
- Twitter - fast food for ever-fattening egos
- How Occupy Wall Street became Pick a Protest
- Steve Jobs was just a man
- What are you?
- Who did ET really call? Woo-woo fest at Wits might have the answer
- How to strut like a slut and itch like a bitch
- The world according to reader feedback
- To judge or not to judge; that is the Mogoeng
- 'A Boy Named Sue' and a victim named 'slut'
- How to bake the perfect humble pie
- How to win friends and influence the irrational
- See what I mean? Or maybe you don't...
- Separating sense from nonsense
- Racial nationalism - the silliest disease of them all
- Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can rip my soul
- Just catch the next feminist wave
- That's right - tertiary education is a privilege, not a right
- The conundrum of university - level remedial education - where do we start?
- The immense value of the egghead
- If ridicule be the right remedy, mock on
- Racism, put on your ballot-proof vest
- It was the lizard on the grassy knoll
- Of unenclosed toilets and enclosed ballot booths
- Our responsibility to build a better 'Bill'
- It's the Singer, not the Song
- Trapped in an abusive relationship? Dial 0800-VOTE
- Hate speech and hateful words - there is a difference
- Why the Bill of Responsibilities doesn't make the grade
- Natural selection and principled prejudice
- The Orwellian horror of a world without grammar
- Beware the Jabberwock
- Ya don’t learn nuffink by shutting others up
- U2, Brute!
- Unfollowing the defriended is like delisting the unlikeable
- There's something fishy about Kenny and his critics
- Astrology - the gullible's travails are written in the stars
- Dr Woo and the Silicon Snake-oil Bangle Sellers
- Life, liberty and the pursuit of dignity
- Who wants to be African anyway?
- The Beatles warned you, Mr President
- Annelie Botes, racism, moralistic awards 'n all
- The silence of the racists
- The proof of the pudding
- Freedom is a fragile thing
- The conditionality of morality
- Of guillotines, smoking, kissing children and scientific proof
- Why moral absolutism hasn't done so well
- The moral arrogance of relativism
- The dilemma of being special in a world of special people
- Of burning closets and closed minds
- Is Internet making us stoopid commenters?
- To be, or not to be serious
- Stepping into greyer shades of grey
- Books and beliefs and other burning issues
- Talking of Hawking and thinking of God
- ‘You may be wrong for all I know, but you may be right’
- The unbearable triteness of best-selling BS
- The struggle for true freedom is with us more than ever
- It’s silly to take a penknife to a gunfight
- Tell me lies, tell me sweet little morally questionable falsehoods
- I think therefore I am … at least I think so
- First, do no harm
- All rights are equal – or should be
- Beauty and the beastly behaviour
- Afrighana versus United States of North America – a continental dilemma
- Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – the multiple tasks of multi-tasking
- Blow the vuvuzela and blow the cultural argument
- Roll up! Roll up! Welcome to the World Cup!
- Thought police, never a good thing
- The redemptive nature of offence
- Potholes or profits – the modern dilemma of corporate social responsibility
- Too many cows, too few tuna and too big an appetite
- Press freedom’s value is in our capacity to take part
- Of uncertainty and the opinions it spawns
- Just another brick in the wall
- Playing the authenticity card
- The dangers of tolerance
- ‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads
- Julius is The Man
- Beware the orthorexics as you chomp down on your boerie-roll
- Freedom of (Multi)choice
- Let's talk about our moral code